Monday, November 20, 2017

Review of 'Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities'

I loved and hated this. There's so much in terms of examples and analysis of the sharing economy, but I found the structure (an example of a city and the way it demonstrates particular aspects of sharing, and then a general discussion of those aspects...which touches on the cities in the other chapters) confusing, and the language downright impenetrable. It's hard to believe that I could once read and write the language of academic social science - now I find it impossible to engage with. I really have to fight to engage with content that's written like this. I notice it particularly in the sentence structure, which could easily be fixed either by the authors or by a tougher editor - but also in the choice of words, and in particular in the use of everyday words in special meanings.

A real shame, because the authors have a superb depth of knowledge and understanding, and the book is full of links and references that make it a great gateway...I hope that they write another, more accessible one soon, perhaps with more of a handbook for activists and cities feel.

Review of 'Mudbound'

Well-crafted period drama about racism and poverty set in post-war Mississipi, and focusing on the relationships between a relatively poor family of white farmers and their extremely poor black tenant-neighbours. It's a Netflix original, and rather well made, though nothing terribly innovative in terms of narrative or cinematography - does Netflix specify that its original-made content has to work on a range of devices?

It becomes generally harder to watch as it sinks from casual racism to the muderous kind, driven by the way in which the young returning ex-soldier son from the black family no longer properly knows his place in the white-dominated order; his 'crime' is compounded by the unlikely friendship he develops with the white farmer's returning brother, since neither of them can get over the undigested experience of the war and the death of comrades alongside them.

Worth watching, and what I thought was a good performance from Carey Mulligan as the farmer's wife - would be interested to hear from friends who know better how she did with the accent.

Watched at home on TV via Netflix on phone and Chromecast.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review of 'A Little Life'

A brilliant and terrible book which has haunted me for the last six weeks. Not at all the sort of thing I usually read - I'm more a person for genre fiction that provides me with a light and slightly dull escape in the evenings, rather than something that offers intense emotional catharsis. But I couldn't stop reading, in part because it's very well written, and also because it would have felt too much like cowardice and betrayal.

This starts of as a sort of multiple life story - four friends who had met at Harvard and their continuing lives threaded together. They are living cool lives in Manhattan and they are bourgeois-bohemian poor (a bit) but marked for success. Gradually it begins to focus on the life of one of the young men, who is a brilliant but damaged lawyer.

Most of the book is about how he got to be that damaged and how it plays out into his life and those of the others. It's very hard to read - lots of abuse, child-rape, unspeakable violence, self-harm, mental and physical disease. I'm glad I read it, and I appreciate what a superb work it is, but I am really relieved that it's over.

Review of Effie Gray

Standard period drama about the unhappy marriage (imdb calls it a love triangle, but there is nothing of the kind going on here) between John Ruskin and his wife Euphemia Gray. Written by and starring Emma Thompson, and her partner Greg Wise as Ruskin. A bit slow, a bit Merchant-Ivory when they get to Venice, and generally rather old-fashioned looking...in general period dramas have moved on a bit, but this look tired and made-for-TV.

Ruskin comes across as a damaged and nasty person who is under the thumb of his dominating parents, Effie is more or less a doormat who is suddenly empowered by the advice of Emma Thompson's character into seeking a scandalous annulment for impotence and non-consummation. Ruskin's suspected pedophilia is hinted at.

I thought it didn't entirely convey how important a cultural figure Ruskin was; his reactionary ideas about art and aesthetics really set the tone for the second half of the Victorian period and have arguably plagued Britain's sense of itself and its place in the world ever since.

Watched on BBC iPlayer, now built in to our new Samsung TV so no need to use Chromecast.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review of 'Primer'

Watched this confusing film about start-up geeks who invent a time machine by mistake. I really didn't understand or follow it - not just the technology, but the plot. I managed fine with other time travel films, so I think the problem here was that the narrative hooks that are meant to show what is going on were absent; as with so much you don't realise how much work these do until they aren't there. Impressive that a film which looks OK could be made for so little money ($7k I think) and it would have been interesting to see whether a less complex plot and subject material could have made a more mainstream film for the same money.

Watched on our TV via Chomestream (on Linux PC) and Chromecast. That worked fine at least.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review of 'The Death of Stalin'

A well-made British 'comedy', with all of your favourite character actors, about the last days of Stalin and the aftermath. Ought to be required watching for anyone still a bit soppy about the USSR. Not many laughs, though the couple next to us seemed to find lots of it very funny; even the absurdities of the dictatorship and the bureaucracy can't be very funny against a background of so many juidicial and extra-judicial murders.

A few odd things; what seems to take a few days in the film (death of Stalin to fall of Beria) actually took a year. Almost no mention of anti-semitism, though of course it pervaded everything - even the references to the Doctors' Plot are without a mention of Jews, though that's what it was about.  And I didn't much like the depiction of Nikita Kruschev as a wise-cracking New Yorker - I much preferred the way Bob Hoskins played him in Enemy at the Gates, as a rather coarse USSR native.

But these are quibbles, and it's a really good film. Ruth and I couldn't help but think about our grandfathers who had so loved Stalin.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill.

Review of 'The Other Side of Hope'

Pleasantly quirky and uplifiting film about a Syrian refugee who ends up in Helsinki. We see the wheels of bureaucracy preparing to deport him to a situation it deems safe even as the news reports the massacres, some Fascists who try to kill him, but also lots of nice ordinary decent Finns (and some desperate down-and-outs too) who rally to his support. It's a lot like Le Havre, but in Finland.

Some visual jokes, notably that though it's contemporary everything looks like it's in the 1950s or some other recent-history period. The restaurant where the refugee ends up working is stuck in a time-warp in terms of decor and cuisine (a reminder of the time when Finnish food was considered the worst in the world), the restaurant owner drives a 1950s car, and the truck driver who smuggles in the sister has a vintage mobile transportable from the early 1980s - which wouldn't even work now, the network on which it ran having long been closed down. Not entirely sure why any of this - I've noticed it in other Kaurismäki films, notably the noire Hamlet that we saw at the Sydney Film festival in the early 1990s, which was all Soviet-style plumbing and industrial locations.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill via laptop and projector, having been obtained via informal distribution.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review of 'Weiner'

A rather sad political fly-on-the-wall documentary about the unsuccessful run for New York mayor of Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner. Why people allow fly-on-the-wall documentaries I'll never understand; perhaps the answer is that although he's not too bad for an American politician, with decent enough views and policies, and a focus on the interests of what he calls the 'middle class' (by which he means the working class), he is still a narcissist. He can sit on the phone making call after call to rich friends and acquaintances, asking for money, without flinching. There are several Bulworth-type moments in the film, where he repeats the same speech over and over again, to camera or to an empty room, practicing. Normal people can't do that without being self-concious, but politicians can.

The thing about Weiner is that he's disgraced and fails because of a character flaw, and by the standards of American political life it's a small one. He 'sexts' pictures of his bulging underwear to a young woman that he's never met, and she senses the opportunity for celebrity and feeds him to the media. He didn't touch her, he didn't hurt anyone - they never even met, except online. He didn't embezzle, he didn't cheat on his wife, who by the way is a bigger political operator than him and close to Hillary. At one point in the film she's apparently faced with the choice of dumping him or losing her own political career, and it's not clear which way she is going to go.

Ultimately he's a big loser, the more so because his insight into his situation is lost in the face of innappropriately dogged resolution to go on no matter what. It's an over-used metaphor, but it is a bit like watching a car crash in slow motion. As the audience we know how this is going to go, but he can't or won't.

Watched via Chromestream and Chromecast, shortly before a Windows 10 update trashed my laptop.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Review of 'Paddington'

A very liberal film which makes much of Paddington's status as an immigrant...he's not really a refugee or an asylum seeker, but parallels are drawn between him and Mr Gruber's experience as a Kindertransport kid, and there's a lot about the need for people to be generous to the displaced and homeless. There's not much about what actually happens to people (or presumably bears) who enter the country illegally; the Brown family just adopts him, and that's that.

Pretty much every British comedy or character actor you can think of is in it, and seem to be having fun. There are lots of cinematic jokes and parodies of other films. I rather thought that Nicole Kidman as the wicked museum curator was reprising her role as Mrs Coulter in The Golden Compass, though she's not quite as menacing here.

Watched in two halves: in the Middle Floor at Springhill via legitimate iTunes download on someone else's laptop and the Springhill projector, and then at home via informally obtained download and Chromestream from my Linux laptop to the Chromecast in our TV. The second of these turned out to be much easier than the first - it took about 40 minutes to get the legitimate version working...first two DVDs didn't work in any of the available DVD players, and then there were issues with getting the mac laptop to talk to the projector.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Review of 'The Corruption of Capitalism'

A bit of a disappointment, in that the ideas in the book are better than the book itself.  I've heard Guy Standing talking about the ideas on the radio, and he was very good. It rather feels like the publisher told him to make it longer, so he crow barred in some other stuff about how shit everything is - how the political system is broken, how platform capitalism is turning lots of people into pure labour-for-hire...I don't disagree with any of it, and he makes his points well with lots of examples; but it distracts from the main argument, which is about how 'free' markets are anything but.

Capital isn't interested in free markets or competition, and does everything it can to structure and seek out markets where competition is weak or non-existent - through licensed monopolies from the state and/or through patents and copyright. Indeed, I think too many people on the left believe the neo-Liberalism is about rolling back the state, as it pretends to be, when actually the state is crucial for assembling the markets (think the NHS or benefits system) so that they can be exploited, and for enforcing and protecting the monopolies.

There is also a sense in which the relentless barrage of numbers become a bit wearing - an infographic or two to break up the page might have been nice.

Overall this is a good and important book, buried inside a slightly less good one.